DH Lawrence, his poem ‘Poverty’ – and what does it mean to be progressive?


DH Lawrence (1885-1930)


Marx understood perfectly well that capitalism was disruptive; that was what he liked about it, that, along with the possibilities that such disruption opened up in its wake.

The following is contributed by guest blogger TomG.

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DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Poverty’ was read to me by an old friend several years ago as a birthday gift. It turned out to be a very good one. I knew that DH Lawrence had a reputation as a right wing sympathizer; I also knew he hated the bourgeoisie and had written a poem, ‘How Beastly the Bourgeoisie Is’, to that effect. But aside from that poem I was unfamiliar with any other of his poetry. Beside liking ‘Poverty’ and appreciating my friend’s consideration of me I became sufficiently intrigued to pursue Lawrence’s poetry and ended up reading a collection of his shorter poems, Pansies, written toward the end of his life and which contained both ‘Poverty’ and ‘How Beastly the Bourgeoisie Is’. Both of these poems were written after the 1926 General Strike in the U.K. but before the rise of Hitler or the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, neither of which Lawrence lived to witness or offer an opinion about.

What is it about this man, who died in 1930, age 44, who hates poverty and the bourgeoisie with a visceral intensity (the bourgeoisie were not too keen on him either), and whose sympathies lie with the right? On a flippant note I think: this is the perfect man for today’s strange and politically discordant times. On a more serious note, on reading his poems, ‘Poverty’ in particular, I am reminded of the confusion that abounds today about just what terms like “progressive” and “reactionary” mean. Since my initial political schooling in the 1970’s, particularly in supporting the National Liberation Front in the Vietnam War and embracing revolutionary Marxism, these terms seem to have morphed into one another, the revolutionary left in the developed world has collapsed completely, the reformist left looks cadaverous and economic development and internationalism, once proud mantles of the left, are being championed more by the right. Go figure.

So looking at Lawrence’s poem became a vehicle for raising some very contemporary questions. But first, the poem.


The only people I ever heard talk about my Lady Poverty
Were rich people, or people who imagined themselves rich.
Saint Francis himself was a rich and spoiled young man.

Being born among the working people
I know poverty is a hard old hag,
and a monster, when you’re pinched for actual necessities.
And whoever says she isn’t is a liar.

I don’t want to be poor, it means I’m pinched.
But neither do I want to be rich.
When I look at this pine-tree near the sea,
That grows out of rock, and it plumes forth, plumes forth,
I see it has a natural abundance.

With its roots it has a natural grip on its daily bread,
And its plumes look like a green cup held up to the sun and air
And full of wine.

I want to be like that, to have a natural abundance
And plume forth, and be splendid.

I remember being impressed when I first heard it and further readings deepened my appreciation. It captures the grim determination to survive that those subjected to the rule of the old hag need to have as they try to escape her grip; and it evokes their desire to flourish. One of its great strengths is its authentic tone; no privileged condescension here, Lawrence is speaking from a personal and very individual experience. This, I think, also proves to be its central weakness; more on this below. Its aims of natural abundance and splendour are modest; who could possibly deny the right to material comfort, to the personal and cultural growth Lawrence yearns for in the poems last lines, to those who either do not enjoy them or whose experience of them is tenuous or subject to the caprice of external forces?

But the question I returned to was how progressive is the poem? It would have been a pertinent question when Lawrence wrote it; and in today’s climate where confusion reigns about what it means to be progressive, it remains pertinent. In trying to answer this I ended up looking at the poem from two angles. The first of these is aspirational, deeply personal and all the more powerful because of it. The second deals with the ‘how to?’ question, the road to take to consign the old hag to the history books. The poem’s silence on this last point should not forbade us from taking this matter up for the silence contains suggestions which are implicit in the poem and are faithful to the man.

The Aspirational

Lawrence knew poverty first hand and arguably its effects contributed to his early death from tuberculosis; there is a bitterness, a knowing, which is intimately felt and communicated. Like those who feel her pinch now, the desire is to escape, to get out from under, to get ahead. This is a progressive yearning; it always has been and it remains so whether or not the pinch is felt in the so-called developed world or in the undeveloped or third world.

Lawrence’s attack on the romanticism accorded “lady poverty” by the privileged, his exposure of their hubris is also personally felt, hard edged and progressive. He wants the old hag removed, along with the pieties of her well heeled apologists; he wants to develop, to move forward (literally, to progress). No problems here. In spite of his generally right wing sympathies he could be speaking for workers everywhere; so too for those ground down and “pinched” by poverty over the millennia.

You take the high road and I’ll take the low road*

If Lawrence offers suggestions here, of what is the best path to take escape from the old hag’s grip, they are ambiguous to the point of being opaque; the poem is, after all a personal testament and not a manifesto. And I must confess to liking the way the question is left open. It is up to the reader to pick up and develop this should they be inclined to do so.

Being a communist I’m inclined to do so and somewhat absurdly perhaps the first person that popped into my mind when I read the poem was Richard Burton. The second was Deng Xiaoping, but more on him later. Actually the Burton reference is not so absurd: both he and D.H. were sons of miners who knew what it was to be pinched, and both became famous in their respective artistic fields, one being sympathetic to the left, the other the right. So while the reference to the dearly departed Welsh thespian is playful, it is also serious. Burton described himself as a socialist (a communist on occasions – because, he said, he didn’t exploit others) and justified his wealth and lifestyle by pointing out that everyone should be able to live like him. He was right. He too wanted to have a natural abundance and be splendid and it is something he thought all people should have. Greens and assorted pseudo-leftists, please take note.

If Marxists, of whatever stripe, are to promote beliefs in economic and social development and the cultural and personal transformations which spring from these, then we aim to level upwards, not downwards. We can argue about roads, (can of worms anyone?) but as soon as we concede, hands wringing, that development may have gone too far, too quickly, too disruptively; that it is ruinous to the environment or to ‘fragile eco-systems’ and must therefore be stopped; that the human footprint is bad; that modernity has sold us a lemon and so on, we cease to be progressive let alone Marxist and we give the old hag a legitimacy she does not deserve. We may remain concerned, decent and politically active souls involved in any number of things; and, heaven knows, there is a chance that some of these activities may even be progressive, but we ourselves are left at the starting blocks.

Marx understood perfectly well that capitalism was disruptive; that was what he liked about it, that, along with the possibilities that such disruption opened up in its wake. He understood too that in order to create a propertyless working class capitalist development dispossessed the mass of peasants and drove them into the arms of what was then (and is now, in developing countries) an unregulated free labour market with all the uncertainty, impoverishment, degradation and possibilities that accompanied this. But even before the Manifesto was written he also understood the need and opportunity that these same developments afforded the working class to organise and fight for political rights and economic concessions. And while it is true that he had wanted and expected the working class to recognise the need for revolutionary transformation – a task that still beckons – it is also true that the working classes in all advanced countries has been able to wrest significant democratic and economic concessions from their respective ruling classes, thereby ameliorating the kind of poverty that characterised the Industrial Revolution of Marx’s and Dickens’ time. While the old hag is still with us, she has been forced to give ground and develop the capacity to ‘shape shift’ as developed economies see a widening wealth gap accompanied by a decline in absolute poverty. In the undeveloped world she remains a traditional old hag while in the developed world she has also assumed a distinctly post modernist capacity.

Hit the road Jack …

Above I had indicated that Lawrence had made no suggestions about what road to take or whether there was even a choice of route. However such a view is disingenuous.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a silence is just a silence; but not here, not with DH Lawrence. While this has something to do with his right wing sympathies, leaving it at this is a cheap shot. More at issue is his individualism and how this individualism is largely cut off from his working class roots. There is, for example, a warmth and a fidelity to his past in Burton which one struggles to find in DH Lawrence. It is as though the experience has been too painful and embittering for him to want to do anything other than turn his back on it and escape. He doesn’t want to be rich, to be one of “them”; he just wants to get out from under and to flourish. This is a modest enough desire on the one hand, but it’s all about him (as opposed to him and his mates, and beyond this, his class) on the other. And this is where Deng comes in.

Two sayings of Deng’s stand out above all others: “Black cat, White cat? Who cares so long as it catches mice?”, and “To get rich is glorious”. The former was a metaphor for promoting capitalist economic development over socialist economic development, was uttered under proletarian rule and was designed to fudge. The latter is a blunt, honest admission of his position and was said under restorationist rule where the need to fudge had disappeared. Cats may not matter, but roads do and Deng knew it. So too did his protagonists, which is why they were after his hide.

DH Lawrence and Deng neither knew, or knew of, each other and at first take they make strange bedfellows. But there exists a certain similarity between them, between their yearnings and the politics each is drawn to or promotes. The similarity is around paths to development or what Lawrence may describe as escaping the clutches of the old hag. When Deng uttered his infamous ‘black cat, white cat’ line he was not meaning the he was indifferent as to what approach was taken or that he valued each equally – no post modernist relativism for this man or the newly emerging class that he represented. He had an antipathy to the ‘socialist road’ and favoured the ‘capitalist road’. His appeal was both to the new, privileged class that found organisational and political expression in the communist party (those in power taking the capitalist road) and to the narrow type of individualistic aspirations this class nourished. It is all about getting ahead any way you can and Deng’s way (the capitalist way) will get you there quicker because you won’t have to worry about who you step over, or step on, on your way to achieve your “glorious” prize.

So far as I am aware DH Lawrence did not take an active interest in political economy and it is not on this level that he sidles up to Deng. Lawrence mistrusted and was estranged from his class. The idea of collectivism, of collective action as a means of getting out from under – and in the process, of finding himself as an individual, a very different individual from the one he became – scared him viscerally. My guess is he feared being overwhelmed individually to the point of losing himself. Nietzsche’s modernist affirmation of individualism – that the individual has always had to struggle against being overwhelmed by the tribe and that nothing was more important than the privilege of owning oneself – would have struck a deep chord in Lawrence. It is his rejection of his class and of class politics as such that place Lawrence alongside Deng and places his poetry in a very different political camp than that of the great communist poets like Mayakovsky, Brecht or Hikmet.

DH Lawrence ‘s path to salvation, to getting out from under, is an individual and lonely one. While there is occasional reference made in his poetry to workers, the poor, the rich… there is no sense of attachment or connection and even less of trust. There is a chasm that separates him from his class of origin which finds expression in his poetry. His attempts to bridge this chasm, to really connect, fail. He reaches out to individuals, generally women, never to his class. I think he would have argued that he didn’t reach out to any class, certainly not to the bourgeois class that he despised. While this is true in one sense it also reinforces my point. In terms of class, or even community attachment, he felt and was isolated. This affected his yearnings and his means of escape. It leaves him and Deng sharing an affinity around roads. While the encouragement to get rich would have stuck in his craw the idea of black cat, white cat, of get me out of here any which way, would have appealed.

Lawrence’s mistrust of class, particularly the class consciousness and loyalty that the working class requires if it is to overthrow the capitalist class and to rule society itself, his elevation of individual aspiration above all else, is precisely the bait that Deng (and his equivalents elsewhere) rely upon and appeal to. One doesn’t have to agree with all of it – as mentioned above, Lawrence would have rejected the appeal to be a bourgeois fat cat – to be hooked and reeled in. This is one of the appeals of petty bourgeois individualism (to give it its PC, old school description); we may be genuinely appalled at the behaviour of those who stab others in the back, push or keep others down as they go for glory and we may even protest the fact. But so long as we abjure a class identification and solidarity and put all of our eggs into the narrow form of individuality that appealed to Lawrence, such protest would be as effective as pissing into the wind and the pull of that lone pine tree, flourishing and abundant, becomes impossible to resist. No wonder the tree appealed – it was as cut off from its kind as Lawrence was from his. This type of reaction would have suited Deng and the new Mandarins right down to the ground.

(As an aside, the term ‘petty bourgeois individualism’ certainly describes the kind of individualism Lawrence was drawn to. Unfortunately it’s a term that has been typically used by the radical (and, too often, censorious) left as a term of abuse designed to silence rather than to critically analyse. This is a pity because it tends to discourage communists from asking what kind of individualism, or perhaps more accurately, individualisms, will flourish in post revolutionary and communist societies and how we can recognise their beginnings and encourage their development under capitalism.)

Lawrence’s poem, then, is progressive in so far that it is identifying a problem and in aspiring to rise above them, but reactionary in the solution it implies – individual talent and enterprise cut off from its social base – a solution that, by definition, excludes most of those in the old hag’s grip, leaving them to their own devices as well as to hers.

It might be eighty-five years since Lawrence’s early death from tuberculosis but the question of what constitutes progressive, the question of ‘roads’, if you like, is contemporary and urgent. As mentioned above, this piece is not so much about Lawrence as it is about us. Marxists, there have been numerous incarnations, have been the inheritors and are now the remnants of a once vibrant revolutionary movement (or movements, depending on your stripe) who are now so marginalised and irrelevant to the day to day life and struggles of the modern working class and, very importantly, the individuals who make up this class, that we can now comfortably meet in the roomy confines of a broom closet. To become relevant enough to move out of the broom closet, let alone be credible as a challenge to bourgeois hegemony we need to rediscover what it means to be progressive as well as revolutionary (Marx is a good place to start) and be prepared to fight for it.

If some of the divergent strands of DH Lawrence’s poetry can be of assistance with this then, eighty five years on, we can happily acknowledge the contribution he is now making to a progressive cause.

*The reference is to an old Jacobin song The Bonnie Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond. While the Jacobin cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie was a dud one the song is correct to suggest that roads matter (and that the low road, the one the common folk were made to take, is the right one). The chorus, which has a very familiar ring, is reproduced here:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’.